Wednesday 26 April 2017

Tomás Ó Sé: Croke Park is where it counts - this time Kerry won't blink

Anthony Maher and Kieran Donaghy will be hoping to make their presence felt against Tyrone and Sean Cavanagh on Sunday
Anthony Maher and Kieran Donaghy will be hoping to make their presence felt against Tyrone and Sean Cavanagh on Sunday
Tomás Ó Se

Tomás Ó Se

In Kerry we've long been acknowledged as kings of the art of 'plámásing.'

The patent for dishing out platitudes to opponents was registered in Killarney where countless tape recorders and dictaphones have been filled with kind words about Cork, Dublin and just about anyone else we were playing over the years.

We were masters of playing the media game beautifully.

But around 2003 I began to get the sense that there might be someone even better than us at it.

Mickey Harte had taken Tyrone to an Ulster final in his first year and they were coming down to play us in an All-Ireland semi-final.

'What a privilege it would be to even share the field with these great footballers, the aristocrats of football,' came the word from Tyrone.

'Wouldn't it be great to live with these fellas for as long as we would.'

Mickey was as vocal and eloquent as anyone, his players were on message too. They'd even list you out to embellish their point. Their admiration for us, it seemed, knew no bounds. It struck me how keen they were to put it across.

If you weren't careful you could get sucked in by it and start thinking, 'Jesus, these guys have great time for us'.

They no more meant what they were saying than the man in the moon though, the public demeanour disguising the private rage they took to Croke Park and unleashed on each of the three occasions that we played them there.

No doubt we underestimated them in 2003. We didn't see it coming - their intensity, hunger, relentlessness. We weren't ready for it. They went for the jugular and didn't stop squeezing.

It was at a time when analysis hadn't become as rooted in preparation. You knew the names but not the form. We were blind to it.

By 2005 and certainly 2008 we were more prepared for it but this was a great Tyrone team, capable of so much sublime football and they had incredible work rate.

They were ruthless in how they closed out a game too, much like they were against Monaghan.

People might complain about the way they play sometimes but what I say to that is I'd have another All-Ireland medal if we had the same ruthlessness.

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If we really had that cynical streak, Kevin McManamon wouldn't have got in for that goal in the 2011 final and, I'm quite sure, we'd have closed it out. That's the bottom line.

We tried to play our way out of it. Quite often it worked for us, that time it didn't. If a Kerry team took that cynical approach now, I'd say, 'Fine, we'll take it'.

The fact is Tyrone won't give a damn about the criticism they shipped the last day. Their cynicism only manifests when they smell blood. It's what they know. They don't understand when everyone else loses the run of themselves over it.

That same work rate we saw in 2003 is embedded in today's team. But are they better footballers? I would think not.

That said, there's a palpable sense of deja-vu now, the familiar rhetoric that prefaced 2003.

'Ah Kerry should have too much for them'. 'Too much of a scoring threat'. 'They'll win by four or five'.

Maybe it will work out like that but it's dangerous talk and will feed perfectly into Tyrone's psyche.

You can be guaranteed that Harte is busy working that into the minds of his players this week.

No other manager has such experience and success at drawing on that energy, at building up a team that most expect to lose.

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They've had the perfect storm with the frenzy surrounding Tiernan McCann's proposed suspension. The fact that it hasn't stuck won't temper the sense of injustice they feel.

Why is it that there always seems to be some little nugget they can chew on when they're playing Kerry?

No doubt, it has brought them closer and they're sure to emerge from the traps like ravenous lions.

But rage alone doesn't win you games. It didn't then and it won't now. You need a proper plan.

To my mind Tyrone are by far the most defensive team left in the championship. It's one thing getting numbers back, it's another thing applying those bodies properly. And Tyrone do that so well.

Against Sligo and Monaghan, you could see a pattern in how and where they slotted into position when they didn't have the ball.

They are also the hardest-working team, based on what I've seen, which is saying something because Mayo were incredible in that department the last day.

Their counter-attack is really impressive, nearly every ball played through the hand at pace.

I'd say in terms of ball retention they have the highest percentages too. A statistic of just 13 kick-passes - excluding, frees, sidelines and shots at goal - against Monaghan tells you everything about their preferred risk-free style.

Even in modern terms that's an incredibly low figure for use of the boot in general play, at odds with the propensity of so many of their predecessors, men like Brian McGuigan, Philip Jordan, Kevin Hughes and, of course, Peter Canavan who could thread a ball through the eye of a needle.

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Mattie Donnelly, Peter Harte, Ronan McNabb and McCann ferry ball impressively to areas where Conor McAlliskey, Darren McCurry and Seán Cavanagh then take control.

Monaghan didn't engage them high enough up the field and it's an area that Kerry have to target.

They must physically impose themselves to turn over ball. They have to engage them between the two '45s, ask more questions than Monaghan, who were too content to move the ball laterally across the pitch.

Like crocodiles in a swamp, patience and timing for Tyrone was everything.

Kerry also have to target Niall Morgan's kick-out. Outside Cluxton, I'd say there isn't another goalkeeper who can drop a ball down the throat of a colleague 45 metres away like him. But Kerry need to force his restarts long to the areas where they have the advantage, where the big men are and where they can dominate.

They must be prepared for war in that 'middle eight' zone where Tyrone teams have traditionally laid down the terms of engagement. You can't allow them make the gains to the '45 that Monaghan yielded to them. You have to outfight them, first and foremost, on their patch.

Kerry will seek to have the same defensive shape they had for last year's All-Ireland final with Donegal, at least five, sometimes six at the back at all times.

The one big difference, as I see it, between 2003 and now is the level of analysis that Kerry will have poured into Tyrone. They'll know every move and every trend.

It can't be said this time that there was blindness to the punch.

If there is one thing that has stuck in my craw though from our battles with them it's the idea that we somehow recoiled in their company, this notion that Tyrone stared Kerry in the eyes three times during the noughties and it was Kerry that blinked first.

As if there was some mental frailty there. I've carried that around in my head a fair few years now. They beat us fair and square, playing good football. I'd be the first to acknowledge that and always have.

When we beat them in 2012 that counted for nothing. A mere footnote. That day was about not losing in Killarney, nothing else. That's where all that post-match relief stemmed from.

Revenge for '03, '05, '08? There wasn't a bit of it. It certainly didn't offer me any solace for those defeats.

Croke Park is where it really matters, Croke Park is where our history is.

And Kerry, I sense, won't blink there this time.

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